Money

Artist Angus O'Callaghan finally discovered at the age of 91

Serendipity led to the discovery of photographer Angus O'Callaghan and the success of his 1960s photographs of Melbourne.

James Cockington

It's not every day a new artist is discovered at the age of 91.

In May 2013, a colour print by Melbourne photographer Angus O'Callaghan​, called Melbourne Milk Bar, sold for $2928, including buyer's premium, at a Leonard Joel auction. At the same sale, another of his prints, Coffee Lounge, sold for $2440 IBP, as did a black-and-white photo called Block Arcade.

Melbourne photographer Angus O'Callaghan with his camera.
Melbourne photographer Angus O'Callaghan with his camera. Photo: Eamon Donnelly

Leonard Joel managing director John Albrecht nominates this as the time when O'Callaghan's work officially "went gangbusters". His prediction was that these photos – reprinted in limited numbers – would at least double in value over the next decade. It didn't take that long. Later in 2013, another photo, Princes Bridge, Evening, sold for about $11,000, the current record price. This was one of a limited edition of five in the "supersize" (160 centimetres by 160 centimetres) format.

The Angus O'Callaghan phenomenon is one of the most inspiring to have happened in the past decade. It began modestly enough in 2008, when O'Callaghan was still a spritely 80-something, at a Brighton Primary School art fair fundraiser.

Ben Albrecht, an art dealer and John's brother, was guest auctioneer that night. One of the items for sale was a photo taken 40 years earlier by O'Callaghan, a retired school teacher. When Albrecht saw it, a variety of alarms, bells and whistles went off.

By chance, O'Callaghan was there that night and he explained that he'd taken these photos in the late 1960s in the hope they might be some day be published as a book. Publishers weren't interested, so he stored the negatives and had forgotten about them until they were found 40 years later during a house move.

Albrecht had some high-quality digital prints produced on art paper. He decided to test them on the secondary market and the response was spectacular. Among their biggest fans were a new generation of hipsters who weren't born when O'Callaghan took the shots. This was a Melbourne they had never seen before.

Suddenly, O'Callaghan was the new photographic star, his work now included among that of established artists such as Wolfgang Sievers and Mark Strizic.

The next step was to produce a book. Albrecht raised the finance through the modern medium of crowd funding and the hard-cover, coffee-table edition, simply entitled Melbourne, was released in December 2015. Despite predictions by experts that he'd be lucky to shift 200, he sold 2500 copies in the first month.

Albrecht is now considering a second, larger print run of 5000. For details, see albrechtandocallaghan.com.au. Signed prints are also available. Albrecht and O'Callaghan are now going through the box of negatives, thinking there might be enough for a second edition.

Meanwhile, the O'Callaghan phenomenon rolls on. The photographer is now 93 and quietly enjoying his new-found fame.